The Brewers ended the slow burn of the 2017-2018 offseason by shooting off fireworks for an hour this evening, first by trading a phenomenal haul for Christian Yelich and then for signing Lorenzo Cain to the largest free agency deal in franchise history. Both moves immediately spark the club’s outfield, as Cain improves on center field (which was arguably the club’s weakest position in 2017) and Yelich improves right field. An outfield of Ryan Braun, Cain, and Yelich gives the Brewers a trio of 5.0 WARP potential outfielders at each position, even if some of that potential is in the rearviewmirror. What is much more certain than that 5.0 WARP potential is the floor of the outfield, which just significantly raised and changed the constellation of what-if’s that defined a Braun, Lewis Brinson, and Domingo Santana outfield. What is certain and fascinating is that the Brewers made these win-now moves with extended windows, as both Yelich and Cain are under contract for five seasons. According to Cot’s Contracts, Yelich is guaranteed approximately $44.5 million over four years, with a fifth year option of $15 million, while Cain’s deal is worth $80 million over five years. Somehow, it is difficult to wrap the mind around the idea that the Brewers traded top prospect Lewis Brinson, but still control an arguably better outfield for nearly as many years.
It is time to win. It is time to win now, it is time to win next year, and the year after that, and after those years, too. This is a thrilling feeling as a Brewers fan, especially as one who came of age as an everyday fan during the initial Doug Melvin rebuild. I gather this feeling is difficult for a fanbase that is so used to losing and disappointment so as to design defensive personalities toward the idea of going for it this year. But that’s over now: There’s never next year, not for the next five, and this completely reorients the Brewers organization. With Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Jordan Yamamoto each head to Miami, clearing out three of the top ten spots (and two of the top three spots on the Baseball Prospectus 2018 Top 10). But that’s okay, take your pick: does RHP Freddy Peralta re-enter the top ten? 3B Lucas Erceg? C Mario Feliciano? RHP Marcos Diplan? OF Tristen Lutz? IF Mauricio Dubon? These are all prospects that did not reach the Baseball Prospectus Top 10 that still have Overall Future Potential (OFP) that are somewhere between “useful” and “interesting” MLB potential, and each has something to prove in 2018 (and more space within which to do so).
There will be more time to digest and analyze these moves, but now the Brewers faithful have immediately turned toward trading Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, and/or Keon Broxton. I am not simply playing the contrarian when I emphasize that the Brewers do not need to make such a move. First and foremost, each of Santana, Phillips, and Broxton remain under club reserve beyond the Ryan Braun era in Milwaukee, which means that the club can still play the long game with each of these players. It gets a little more difficult after Broxton will likely have his last minor league option burned in 2018, and Brett Phillips will likely have his last minor league option burned in 2019 (Brewerfan.net, 40-Man Roster).
But, the Brewers have a unique position of strength: first, they began a rest campaign for Ryan Braun in 2017, and there is no reason that the club cannot use a rest campaign for Lorenzo Cain as well. These players represent Milwaukee’s largest contracts, and the club has nothing to lose by remaining cautious with their health and playing time. By providing systematic rest to these veterans, the Brewers can gamble that these outfielders may be less susceptible to nagging injuries, and therefore maximize their potential production. It is worth it to Milwaukee to have the best possible versions of Cain and Braun available over the course of 162 and the playoffs. How can the club accomplish this and continue to win? By deploying some combination of Santana, Phillips, and Broxton between the bench and the minor leagues. Imagine these outfield sets:
Using a very basic assumption of four plate appearances per game for starters and one plate appearance for pinch hitters, these outfield schemes produce the following results:
This scenario obviously leans more on resting Braun than Cain, but more PA can be negotiated to maximize these scenarios. Phillips could serve as a defensive replacement for all three positions, and both Phillips and Santana could be used as late innings pinch hitters in various scenarios. Moreover, these scenarios are developed prior to considering injuries. Each of these players faces injury risks that could eat into playing time, which opens further opportunities for the next outfielder in line. If fans think about what it means to have an “analytic” front office, aggressive rest coupled with aggressive depth could be an important step in gaining an advantage over the 162 grind and the playoffs. In the World Series, after all, there will be a starting spot for three or four games for Braun, Cain, Yelich, and Santana; this is the type of long game that the Brewers can begin playing in rest strategies and roster building.
I am a proponent of the Brewers building the deepest team possible because the club needs every resource they can get in order to contend within their market. The club currently has enough cash to handle a signing of Cain and Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, so this is a real opportunity to build the best possible team for a half-decade span. At some point, trade returns for players like Santana, Phillips, and Broxton mean diminishing returns to the system. Neither Santana nor Broxton have enough of an MLB track record to yield impact prospect talent, and Phillips is in a strange in-between where he will neither be a likely trade destination for returning impact MLB talent or prospects. Holding steady with the outfield roster as is will work just fine; at worst, the club will run into a scenario in which players such as Hernan Perez, Stephen Vogt, Eric Sogard, or Jonathan Villar fail to make the MLB roster out of training camp. If that is the price to pay for significant outfield depth, that is a better price than to trade Santana, Phillips, or Broxton before necessary, and return a less attractive depth option at the first sight of injury or ineffectiveness during the season.
Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing, USAToday Sports Images